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Connecting with the Arts: A Teaching Practices Library, 6-8

Folk Tales Transformed

A visiting theatre artist works with a language arts teacher and a visual art teacher to help eighth-graders transform folk tales into original scenes that the students perform.



Intermediate School 237


Flushing, Queens, New York City




Visual Art
Language Arts


Students use folk tales as the basis for crafting original theatre pieces.

The Integrated Instruction

Nelle Stokes, Visiting Theatre Artist
I worked with Martha Morenstein and her language arts class on a play that’s a compilation of folk tales from different cultures. The kids picked out their own folk tales, adapted them, wrote them, and they’re acting in them. The idea was that kids would experience what it was like to make a piece of theatre.

Martha Morenstein, 8th-Grade Language Arts Teacher
Because Nelle and I work so well together, we understand where each other is coming from. And if we do disagree, it’s fine, because I can say, “Nelle, no, I don’t think that’s right.” Or she’ll say, “Martha, this won’t work, but let’s try something else.” We’re in constant communication, which is good.

Judi Roseman, Visual Art Teacher
At first I felt a little intimidated working with other teachers, because I’m an experienced teacher, and I’m supposed to know it all! And I didn’t feel as if I knew it all – but that’s great, because I’m learning along with the students, which is a really great thing.

Watching the Video

Student in bird maskBefore You Watch
Respond to the following questions.

  • What are folk tales? What are some things folk tales have in common across all cultures?
  • How might folk tales help structure the storytelling process for students?
  • Can traditional folk tales be made relevant for today’s student? How? What do they have to say to today’s student?
  • What artistic disciplines would be good to incorporate into a study of folk tales? How might such a collaboration work at your school? Whom could you involve in a folktale project?

Watch the Program
As you watch, notice places where the arts nurture collaborative relationships among students. Write down instances in which arts elements become infused into, and enrich, students’ own stories.

Reflect on the Program

  • What evidence, if any, did you see of the ways students benefited from this unit of study?
  • How, in particular, did theatre and visual art strengthen students’ storytelling?
  • What kinds of preparation do you think preceded the lessons seen in the program? How do you prepare your students to be creative in a multi-disciplinary unit?
  • How do these teachers’ working relationships and the schools’ resources support the type of instruction shown?
  • Which components of the study – theatre, visual art, multimedia – would be most challenging for you and your colleagues to incorporate in an integrated unit? Which would be most natural? Why?

Connecting to Your Teaching

Reflect on Your Practice

  • Where in your curriculum might folk tales be an appropriate addition? Where, for example, might they engage students and provide ways to express what they know?
  • What opportunities exist at your school for planning a long-term project with other teachers that includes a “culminating event”?
  • How would you set such a project in motion? With whom might you collaborate? What disciplines would you involve?

Adaptations / Extensions to Consider

Scale it back: Have your students, working as a class, create their own folktale. Begin by selecting a moral that their story will convey, then go on to brainstorm characters and plot (using original folk tales as research sources), storyboard the story, and write the dialogue. Students might take turns delivering dramatic readings of the story, after which final revisions would be made.

Compare cultures: Have students read folk tales from different cultures around the world and discuss what the folk tales say about the cultures. Have student groups research a culture while they read its folk tales. Compare the storylines, settings, and morals of these folk tales with their own.

Connect to storytelling: Encourage students to recognize the elements and decisions made in storytelling. Have students select characters (their names and traits), settings (location, landscape, era), and dramatic events (such as betrayal, misunderstanding, broken promise), and then construct their stories either individually or in groups.

Additional Resources

Selected Unit Materials

All Around the World — Folk Tales for the Digital Age: A unit plan including objectives, history, and timeline (PDF)

Print Resources

Ragan, Kathleen, & Yolen, Jane. Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales From Around the World. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. ISBN: 0393320464

Raspanti, Celeste. I Never Saw Another Butterfly. Woodstock, Ill.: Dramatic Publishing Co., 1971. ISBN: 0871292769

Stern, Anita. World Folktales – An Anthology of Multicultural Folk Literature, Teacher’s Guide. Chicago: National Textbook Publishing Group, 1994. ISBN: 0844207829

Walker, Lois. Readers Theatre Strategies in the Middle and Junior High Classroom. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Meriwether Publishing, 1997. ISBN: 1566080274

Yolen, Jane. Favorite Folk Tales From Around the World. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988. ISBN: 0394751884

Web Sites

The Alma Project: A Cultural Curriculum Infusion Model
Rich curriculum including the creation and dramatization of folk tales and the comparison of folk tales from diverse cultures

Story Arts Online
Dedicated to the art of storytelling, including stories, plots, lesson plans, activities, links, and classroom resources

Storynet: National Storytelling Network
Bringing together and nurturing individuals and organizations that use the power of storytelling in all its forms

Tim Sheppard’s Storytelling Resources for Storytellers
An extensive collection of annotated and categorized storytelling resources

Elements of Folk Tales
A unit in which students read traditional folk tales and view filmed versions of those stories

About the School

Intermediate School 237, Queens, N.Y.

Intermediate School 237, located in the Flushing neighborhood in the borough of Queens in New York City, serves over 1,200 seventh- to ninth-graders, primarily students of Hispanic, Asian, and African American descent. The majority of students at I.S. 237 receive free or reduced-price lunch. I.S. 237 is committed to integrating the arts into all forms of education. Resident artists work with teachers and students to promote interdisciplinary instruction, raise school spirit, and strengthen students’ communication skills. I.S. 237 also offers Talent Classes in band, strings, chorus, and visual art and holds two annual Arts Festivals to highlight the artistic achievements of its students.

School information compiled from the I.S. 237 Web site:

Q&A With Teachers

Martha Morenstein,
8th-Grade Language Arts Teacher

How intensive was the work on this project?

Nelle came to the school for 90 minutes once a week. 45 of those minutes were in my classroom; the other half was with Judi Roseman and her art class doing the animation, costumes, and scenery. Nelle had 20 weeks, but she put in at least 25. A few times near the end when we wanted a double period of rehearsal, and the art work was completed, Nelle would work with my class during their Spanish period. Towards the end, we tossed English instruction out the window and rehearsed and worked on the project only.

What was the ability level of the students in this language arts class?

This eighth-grade class was particularly extraordinary remarkably responsible and motivated and the nicest, sweetest young people. It would be extremely difficult to produce a project on this level with a class that was challenged in reading, writing, and behavior. That said, a number of years ago I did a similar project with a ninth-grade class whose members were not as bright or scholarly. I’d been their English teacher for seventh- and eighth-grade as well. They needed a bit more prodding and assistance in turning the stories into scripts.

How has your experience with Nelle affected your own teaching?

I adore Nelle, which I think shows. I love how she works with students and the joy she brings to her work. For many years I taught drama, but the course was dropped about seven years ago. So to have Nelle sharing a love of theatre, plus her technical experience, has really inspired me, and reaffirmed my conviction that young people thrive on being imaginative and being part of a theatrical community.

Nelle Stokes, Visiting Theatre Artist

What kind of training and experience do you have for working in the classroom?

I began my career as an actor, and then started writing and doing production work in television and film. I began teaching entirely by accident a friend was an art teacher at a local elementary school, and asked me to ‘help’ with his school play. It truly didn’t occur to me that this might be a career. I ended up there for two years. Since that time, I’ve worked as an artist-in-residence for over ten years. I’ve managed and trained other teaching artists and done a good deal of staff development on the local and national level.

I think some of the best experience I have is that I was a very bad student as a child, although I loved learning. I am forever grateful to a brilliant teacher who reeled me in, largely through the use of the arts. She had a big banner over the front of the room that said, “It’s not what you’ve got, but what you do with what you’ve got that matters.” I think about Mrs. Barker and her philosophy a lot.

What are some of the challenges associated with working as an artist-in-residence?

Working as an artist-in-residence is a real honor and a great deal of fun, but it’s like anything: doing it well is very difficult. I think one of the biggest challenges is preparation being ready with a plan, but able to bend. Schools are institutions, and institutions have lots of schedules and lots of things going on. Often make that constantly bells ring, kids get pulled out, things change. And you have to be able to “ride the wave,” without anger and without drowning. I am always a guest in a teacher’s classroom. They know their students in ways that I never will. A true partnership with a teacher is a rare and precious thing. Too often a teaching artist can seem at best a distraction, and at worst a nuisance. So working well with a teacher is key.

How would you modify your work if you were teaching students who were more academically or behaviorally challenged?

It would be very difficult to do writing and performance at this level with students who were academically or behaviorally challenged. Doing a large-scale performance, especially with puppets and/or animation, takes a very long time and requires a great deal of patience and discipline on the part of the students. However, I have done a good deal of work with special education populations, students with physical, learning, and emotional challenges. We have created original scripts, produced short videos, and created scenes for performance. I found that the goals – whether performance or production – had to be simpler, and had to be realized more quickly, ideally within the same class period. Holding their attention on one subject from one week to the next could be tricky. Clear, attainable goals and steps work best with any group of students.